Storytelling Saves Lives

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

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Once upon a time there was a king of Persia who witnessed his wife’s clandestine infidelity. Distraught, the king cried out, “Only in utter solitude can man be safe from the doings of this vile world!”

He then had his executioner dispatch the queen. And he swore an oath that he would ever after take a virgin as wife, abate her maidenhood that night, and slay her the next morning. This plan was to “make sure of my honor. For there never was nor is there one chaste woman upon the face of earth!”

Too bad there was no Xanax back then.

Anyway, the king’s project proceeded apace, until the supply of local maidens began to dry up. One day the king tasked his chief wazir to bring him a beautiful bride-to-be, but the poor counsel could not find one … except his own, beloved daughter.

Her name was Scheherazade.

To save her father’s life, Scheherazade insisted on being delivered to the king. Her resolve was a wonder to her father. What he didn’t know was that the clever Scheherazade had a plan of her own.

She was going to tell stories.

It was midnight when Scheherazade arose from the marriage bed and asked the king’s permission to spin him a yarn. And so she began … told a mesmerizing tale … and left off with a cliffhanger!

The king was so pleased by this that he gave her another night to finish the story. She did, then started a new one, and left off at another page-turning moment. So the king spared her again!

And so it went, for 1001 nights, as Scheherazade extended her life by the power of her storytelling. Included in the tales were the likes of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” “Sinbad the Sailor,” and “Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp.”

After the whole cycle, the king was thoroughly smitten (about freakin’ time!), and decided to spare Scheherazade and make her queen.

Storytelling, you see, saves lives.

As I was working on this subject, writer Kristine Kathryn Rusch shared a most interesting post. She wrote about the days following the 9/11 attacks, the despair, the feeling that “we were all waiting for another, equally horrible shoe to drop.”

She needed to escape.

Thank heavens for J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter. I had never read Harry Potter, and frankly, I wasn’t planning to. But I had the first book, and since nothing else was holding my attention (besides the tragedy), I started to read.

And escaped. Harry’s world is different enough from ours to shut out the horrors of the real world, and heal. I will forever associate those books with that need for healing.

I also credit them for teaching me about the value of fiction.

***

I had forgotten that fiction got me through a dark, bleak, and lonely childhood. I had forgotten that stories were the only thing that bonded me and my cold, unhappy mother. I had forgotten that stories got me through tragedies and injuries and losses. I had forgotten just how important escape was, how essential it is to rest, relaxation, and gearing up to go another round in the fight—whatever that fight is.

Dean Koontz makes much the same point in his book, How to Write Best-Selling Fiction. “I write to entertain. In a world that encompasses so much pain and fear and cruelty, it is noble to provide a few hours of escape.”

My friend, the late Stephen Bly, once told a group of writers why he wrote the kinds of books he did. First, it was for “Jannie-Rae,” his beloved wife (the writer Janet Chester Bly). Then, he said, it was for that single mom who has put in a hard day at work. She picks up the kids from day care, brings them home, feeds them, gets them washed and in bed. And now she has a few moments to herself before falling asleep, and picks up a book.

If it was to be his book, he wanted it to carry that mom away and give her the fictive dream and the uplift of an inspiring story.

Isn’t that all to the good? Stress relief can extend life. Entertainment can make the present life better. Sure, we can have challenging fiction of various kinds, but the real power comes from the “lostness” of a reader inside a compelling narrative.

That should be the goal, anyway. Just ask Scheherazade.

Have you ever had a book take you out of a dark time? Provide solace? Make you glad to be alive?

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27 thoughts on “Storytelling Saves Lives

  1. The first thing to come to mind is the movie “The Never Ending Story” (the original and not the sequel) in which a young boy escapes school bullies by hiding in his school and reading a book. He is then drawn into the mythical land of Fantasia ect.. and so on.
    I was bullied a lot back in the day so I can relate to the boy and the want and sometimes the need to escape.

    • James, that’s a great example. Thanks. I endured a bully in elementary school. I was a reader of Classics Illustrated comic books, and one of them, Men of Iron, about knights and squires and a hero and a bully, was a particular favorite. The nice thing is by 8th grade I had grown into basketball playing size, while my tormentor failed to grow much at all. I never had any trouble with him after that.

  2. Good lead-in with Sheherezade. I’m not sure I’ve actually turned to a book to get me out of a dark time. Maybe there were times when I should have.

    I think I would turn to old friends. Maybe Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis and the Peter Wimsey mysteries by Dorothy Sayers. And Pride and Prejudice.

    I’ve had Narnia read to me in my youth. I’ve read them myself a number of times. I read them to my kids. (We’ve learned things about prejudice and stereotype since Lewis’s day, but we need to make allowance for his times and especially his Belfast upbringing.)

    I can’t count the number of times I’ve read the Sayers mysteries. Crazy Lord Peter. Reliable Bunter. Elusive Harriet Vane.

  3. Such a wonderful article, Jim! Thank you!
    I am lucky to say that many, both fiction and non-fiction, books were able to take me out of my dark thoughts and immerse me into something beautiful and captivating. I was quite surprised and sometimes even shocked to come back into real life.
    Including the whole worrying for the characters. How could other people go along with their lives, when this character was in trouble? 😉
    And recently I have discovered another benefit of storytelling. At a technical conference end of September, I made a parallel between novels and their parts and technical publications captured in conformance with S1000D (a technical standard how to produce and maintain technical publications). For example I compared data modules with scenes, and declared that however interactive the publications are, they are still books.
    The result was inspiring: I received many thankful smiles of understanding a complex topic. I was quite grateful myself when I got this idea. That was a very bright light bulb.
    Inspired by this I started the whole series of blog posts continuing this parallel. I called it “A fiction writer’s musings on S1000D”.
    So storytelling doesn’t only saves lives, but it can also help us learning something complex, and make the learning process a very enjoyable one. 🙂

    • “Including the whole worrying for the characters. How could other people go along with their lives, when this character was in trouble?”

      That’s the wonderful alchemy of fiction, isn’t it, Victoria? By “worrying” about the characters, and seeing them get through it, we experience a kind of hopefulness. Or “fear management.” Both good things!

  4. Childhood: (Not a dark time, but escapism): I grew up in Maryland. If you’ve never been there, it is one of the most flat and featureless states in the nation. I was pre-programmed before birth to hunger after the mountains. So as a kid, Zane Grey’s stories helped me escape my flat and featureless landscape to wild and beautiful lands much farther west. To this day I am the only member of the family who wanted to and did leave Maryland for the wild, wild west.

    Adulthood: (Not the typical example you’d be expecting): I became trapped in a very bad job in a very abusive environment. In this case, it was a work of non-fiction by Adam Grant called “Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World” that gave me the mindset change I needed to get out of that awful job. Anybody who reads business books regularly knows they all start to sound the same after a while. But reading this book helped clarify and prioritize many of my agonizing concerns, both about how the business was being run (and accepting their absolute unwillingness to change or see the light) and my fears of changing jobs in a bad economy–jobs are few. Longer story shortened, last week was the first week of my NEW job in a vastly better atmosphere, where growth and professional development are encouraged, and where I am treated like a human being. I credit Grant’s book with steeling my resolve to keep job searching even though I’d already run into a thousand brick walls before applying for this job. I am indeed now glad to be alive, which is a great change from the “walking dead” atmosphere of my former employer. Books to the rescue!!!!!!!

    • Great point about good non-fiction, too, BK. I recall a very difficult time in a certain environment where I had to act in an executive capacity with a troublesome person (how’s that for vague?)

      Anyway, this person had tremendous power within the organization. In a fit of uncertainty I read Harry Truman’s account (in Plain Speaking) of his firing of MacArthur. It was an almost exact analogue with my situation. So I fired MacArthur, and it was the right thing to do.

  5. Many books at a very dark time. It was another, different kind of time in my life. I had a job that required me to travel–a lot. I was exhausted. (My life was sort of like George Clooney’s in Up in The Air. I don’t know how he had the energy to run a side business of inspirational speaking–not that I found his message inspiring. Part of my major responsibility was speaking, and that truly exhausted me. Anyway, I was tired all the time, and that weariness turned into depression. George is obviously depressed, all the time.) I was away from my family a lot, and my travel was as hard on my wife as it was on me.

    One of the things that kept me sane being away from home so much was reading. Reading fiction. I scoured the airport book shops, the book stores of cities I happened to be in for a day or two, after meetings, while waiting for my next boarding. My choice was not heavy tomes–those add to weight. But I looked for the pulp paperbacks, Edward S. Aarons and Assignment series, Ed McBain’s stories, Doc Savage, the whole genre.

    For my spiritual side, it was of course, the Bible. But Sam Durrell trying to keep him out of Chinese intelligence Black House was enough to occupy my mind and give me relaxation.

    • I read a lot of Ed McBain, too, Jim. What an amazingly prolific writer, and (as Evan Hunter) in literary, too. I think Evan (real name: Salvatore Lombino) was a little ticked that Ed proved to be the big moneymaker!

      But you bring up a good point about genre fiction, which almost by definition is escapist.

  6. A reader once told me that one of my books had kept her sane while she sat by her dying mother in the hospital. That comment means more to me than all the good reviews and awards I’ve won because books have kept me sane during hard times, sickness, and unhappiness.

  7. Shogun transported me to another world–I was actually sad when the book ended. But in terms of escaping dark times, reading Nancy Drew gave me a hopeful vision as my childhood world seemed to spin out of control. Nancy served as a capable, powerful role model during a time when they were in short supply!

  8. I can identify with those who have already mentioned work as the “dark time.” With abusive regulatory intrusions, every day is a struggle in my profession. I am reminded of the cartoon showing the inspector, hard hat on top of fancy hair style, clipboard held to chest with folded arms, standing in the middle of the factory. She says, “I don’t know how to do your job, but this manual tells me that you’re not doing it right.”

    Each evening, three hours of paper work consumes all creativity. When it is time to fall into bed and start over, I tell my wife, “Let’s go to bed and get drunk on a book.”

    • “We must stay drunk on writing so reality does not destroy us.” Ray Bradbury.

      Steve, I love to read in bed. Problem is I go about ten minutes, then fall asleep.

      • LOL! That’s why I don’t read in bed. Once I lay down, 3 minutes, tops, I’m out like a light.

    • Steve, I recommend a trip to the library to check out a volume or two of the late Charles Addams cartoons. If you’re not familiar with him, he was the 1940’s version of The Far Side cartoons. Many are work related. Such as the one showing an operating room filled with doctors and nurses surrounding the patient on the table. They are all looking up at the balcony full of med students observing the procedure. Everyone in the balcony is looking at one person with a horrified look on his face. Then you see the spilled box of popcorn covering the patient. The caption is, “Sorry.”

  9. As a mostly unhappy teenager, I escaped my troubled times through the wonderful Jules Verne. I sat under a shade tree in suburbia Kansas and traveled to the bottom of the ocean, to the moon, to the center of the earth, to a mysterious island, and around the whole world. Just thinking about these trips makes me want to go back again. I think I still have room on my Kindle…

  10. After my husband died, I found light weight but well-written fiction ala Kristan Higgins a great help. I wanted to know before I began that there would be a happy ending because my happy ending was gone. In the intervening years my skin had thickened again, and I can enjoy murder and mayhem with the best of them once again, but those happy endings allowed me to sleep at a very bad time.

    • Gayle, one of the great wonders of the fiction world is that there are books of all types out there, that can meet any mood or time. Thanks for sharing that example.

  11. In my early 20s, I had all four wisdom teeth out. They immediately got infected. I spent a lot of time in bed, waiting for pain meds to kick in. I begged a good book from my mom. She handed me The Yargo by Jaqueline Susan. Romance and pulp adventure IN SPACE. It was so fun that I forgot the pain, forgot why I was in bed. I was on those planets, in those space ships. I’m still grateful for the escape experience.

    • When it comes to escapism, Kessie, it’s hard to think of a better example than Jackie Susanne. I had a similar escape experience with Sidney Sheldon’s blockbuster, The Other Side of Midnight.

  12. Strangely enough, I find that some of the stories that provide the most comfort and strength during difficult times are not stories that are “nice,” or that have “happy endings.” Instead, they’re classic hero stories, in which bad things happen to the good guys, yet good persists and ultimately triumphs somehow–but only after a long slough through muck. What these stories offer is a broader narrative lens for making sense out of my own hard times, putting things in perspective when I can’t otherwise see beyond the present and giving me fictional companions for the journey, however challenging it may be. Some favorite examples from film/TV immediately spring to mind (The Mission, The Fugitive, Person of Interest, The X-Files) as well as C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books (esp. The Last Battle) and Out of the Silent Planet.

    • I agree, Rachel. There’s a bit of catharsis in these, and even inspiration. The original myths were like that, right? Teaching virtue, giving courage to the community. Fiction does so many things. We control the knobs and turn up the heat where we will.

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